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Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2003
Out of one world and into another
Michael Winterbottom continues to crank them out, and "In This World" is his third film to open in Tokyo in the past year (following "The Claim" and "24 Hour Party People"). That shouldn't indicate any decline in quality however, since "In This World" took the Golden Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival, beating such competition as "The Hours," "Adaptation" and "Gangs of New York."
Despite this, Winterbottom remains Britain's most underrated director, perhaps because he defies the critics' expectations of the auteur, a signature style or recurring theme that ties his films together. Rather, Winterbottom lets the subject matter dictate his style, choosing to serve the material rather than make it serve him.
With "In This World," Winterbottom and his director of photography, Marcel Zyskind, set off for Peshawar in north Pakistan, armed with lightweight DV cameras and the intent to capture the exodus endured by Afghan refugees seeking to reach British shores. They cast a pair of residents of the Shamshatoo refugee camp, Jamal Udin Torabi and Enayatullah Jumadin, and send them off on a journey through Tehran, Kurdish-controlled territory, Istanbul and a ship bound for Italy. The production crew traveled the same route a few days ahead of Winterbottom and his cast, preparing locations and logistics on the fly, adhering to the actual routes used by human traffickers and their refugee cargo.
The resulting film -- blown up to 35mm from the original digital video -- has a distinctly no-nonsense feel about it. One could almost mistake it for a documentary, were it not for the occasional uses of the symphonic soundtrack by Dario Marianelli, or the fact that trying to film a few of these scenes under nonstaged conditions could get you killed.
"In This World" is a model of simplicity, of straightforward storytelling at its best. It shows us the teeming camps of Peshawar, home to literally hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees, and how families will gamble what little savings they have in the hope of getting one of their sons a better life abroad. And a gamble it is, as we see when 15-year-old Jamal and twentysomething Enayat hit the road. They're totally at the mercy of the shadowy men who handle each leg of the trip. There are meetings over tea where money changes hands. Spartan accommodations are provided and Jamal and Enayat wait anxiously, wondering whether the next ride and the next fake I.D. will come through.
Little indignities aren't so bad -- a border guard takes Enayat's cherished Walkman, they travel in the back of a truck buried under crates of oranges -- but other aspects are fraught with peril: Gunfire erupts as Kurdish villagers attempt to sneak the boys through a snow-swept mountain pass on the border with Turkey. Winterbottom shoots it using a night-vision camera, and the grainy, indistinct images -- interrupted by bright muzzle flashes -- convey well the confusion and panic felt by Jamal and Enayat, who literally have to crawl across the border.
Illegal immigration is a touchy issue in most countries, but whatever one's feelings on the subject, there's no denying the desperation on display in Winterbottom's heartfelt film, nor the hopes with which these immigrants embark on their odyssey. "In This World" largely refrains from politicizing its story, but the mere presentation of certain facts -- the $7.9 billion spent on bombing Afghanistan, compared with the $400 million (much unpaid) pledged to rebuild it -- implies the West will reap what it sows.
Imagine if Rainer Werner Fassbinder had directed a family sitcom in the '70s, and you'd be getting close to the loopy, leftist feel of "Together" (Japanese title, "Eva to Stefan to Sutekina Kazoku"), a funny and insightful look at life in a post-hippie Stockholm commune.
Director Lukas Moodysson ("F**king Amal," "Lilya 4-ever") claims he wanted to make a "touching, sad, serious" film on his characters' well-intentioned but dysfunctional utopianism. The finished film, however, turned out a lot funnier than he expected, proving once again that it's near impossible to revisit the '70s without viewing the era through a prism of irony and kitsch.
That much is clear from the moment a big VW van, decorated with childlike psychedelic designs, pulls up on screen, driven by Goran (Gustaf Hammarsten), the closest thing to a stable core at the Tilsammans (Together) commune. He's picking up his straighter sister, Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren), who's finally leaving her alcoholic husband, Rolf (Mikael Nyqvist), after he slugged her.
Elisabeth quickly warms to the commune's flaky but always interesting atmosphere, but her two kids, 10-year-old Stefan (Sam Kessel) and 13-year-old Eva (Emma Samuelsson), are less enthusiastic about their new living arrangements. Eva describes it morosely to a friend as a bad fairy tale, the upside-down world where everyone cheers when it rains. Certainly the kids are too young to understand why women act like men, men like women and Goran's girlfriend Lena is sleeping with another man . . . let alone why the commune forbids television, Christmas presents and hot dogs. The caketaker is a couple who earnestly denounce "Pippi Longstocking" as "materialist propaganda. It's all about things, things, things!"
Moodysson's film is a perfectly realized comedy of what happens when dogma meets domesticity. Lena's concept of "free love" doesn't play out so well when Goran can hear her screaming orgasms in the room above. Her lover, Erik, a morose young revolutionary, only agrees to have sex with her on the condition that they can discuss Marxist-Leninism post-coitus. (I always thought the allure of Marxism for students worked the other way around . . .) Even Stefan gets into the spirit of things, staging a noisy demonstration in the kitchen with the other children for the right to eat meat.
There's always a hint of farce here, but Moodysson also shows a lot of sympathy for people who are struggling to define the boundaries of new lifestyles, or trying to balance personal freedom with rigid ideals (an equation the Marxists rarely got right.)
"Together" is also a great reflection of the chaos that always ensues when you put a dozen leftists in a room together. Unlike the right, who've always lionized the idea of uniting behind a strong leader, the leftist tendency toward antiauthoritarianism all too often ends up in grudging stalemate and backbiting.
Moodysson's film, however, indulges in the finest "happy end" of recent years: The ideologues banished, the lovers reconciled and everyone playing a mad game of soccer in the snow as one big, happy extended family, set to the giddy strains of Abba's "S.O.S."